The tragic story of copilot Andreas Lubitz, the man who apparently crashed Germanwings flight 9525 into the Alps in an act of suicide and murder, demonstrates the opaqueness of mental illness. It is difficult to know when a person is struggling with private psychological and emotional pain that might lead to dangerous or destructive behavior. All of us tend to keep our thoughts, especially our most disturbing ones, to ourselves. Even when encouraged to speak those thoughts aloud — to a mental health professional, for example — it is very difficult to do so. This tragedy will likely spark calls for increased scrutiny of pilots. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it could lead to the unintended and undesirable consequence that pilots will become even more wary of seeking help. To honor the lives lost will require policies that protect the public while not being punitive to pilots.
Is brain damage an inevitable consequence of American football, an avoidable risk of it, or neither? An editorial published yesterday in the medical journal BMJ poses those provocative questions. Chad Asplund, director of sports medicine at Georgia Regents University, and Thomas Best, professor and chair of sports medicine at Ohio State University, offer an overview of the unresolved connection between playing football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of gradually worsening brain damage caused by repeated mild brain injuries or concussions. The big question is whether playing football causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy or whether some people who play football already at higher risk for developing it. The Football Players Health Study at Harvard University hopes to provide a solid answer to that and other health issues that affect professional football players.
A new report from the University of Washington links long-term use of anticholinergic medications and dementia. Anticholinergic drugs block the action of acetylcholine. This substance transmits messages in the nervous system. In the brain, acetylcholine is involved in learning and memory. In the rest of the body, it stimulates muscle contractions. Anticholinergic drugs include some antihistamines, tricyclic antidepressants, medications to control overactive bladder, and drugs to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The study found that people who used anticholinergic drugs were more likely to have developed dementia as those who didn’t use them. Dementia risk increased with the cumulative dose. Taking an anticholinergic for the equivalent of three years or more was associated with a 54% higher dementia risk than taking the same dose for three months or less. Safer alternatives to anticholinergic drugs exist.
Feeling young may be one way to keep getting older. In a new study, a pair of researchers from University College London found that older people who felt three or more years younger than their actual age were more likely to be alive eight years later than those who felt more than one year older than their actual age. Does a youthful feeling keep people alive? Possibly: feeling younger may lead to better health habits, like exercising and eating healthfully. Feeling younger may also inspire a sense of resilience that keeps people young.
Nearly one-third of American adults are “excessive” drinkers, but only 10% of them have alcohol use disorder (alcoholism). Those numbers, published yesterday in a national survey, challenge the popular idea that most people who drink too much are alcoholics. The new study, done by researchers with the CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, found that about 70% of all American adults drink alcohol at least now and then, about 30% report excessive drinking, and 3.5% have alcohol use disorder. It is higher among heavy drinkers (10%) and binge drinkers, ranging from 4% among those who report binge drinking once or twice a month to 30% among those who binge drink 10 times or more in a month. The knowledge that only 10% of heavy drinkers are alcoholic may be reassuring, but that doesn’t mean the other 90% aren’t have problems with drinking. Some are what Drs. Robert Doyle and Joseph Nowinski call “almost alcoholics.”
Smells and tastes are often sources of great pleasure. They can also spark wonderful memories. But like memories, these senses can fade, or even disappear, with age. A new study suggests that loss of smell may be a canary in the coal mine—an early warning that something else is wrong in the body. In the study, published in PLoS ONE, older people who lost their sense of smell were more likely to have died over a five-year period. Previous research has linked loss of smell to the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. What to do If your sense of smell has faded? Don’t jump to conclusions. Diminished smell function is usually caused by problems in the nose, not in the brain.
Drugs in the benzodiazepine family have long been used to treat anxiety and sleep problems. They can cause a bit of a brain hangover the next day. Experts have long assumed that people’s heads would clear once they stopped taking the drug. That may not be the case. In a study published last night by the journal BMJ, a team of researchers from France and Canada linked benzodiazepine use to an increased risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, the greater a person’s cumulative dose of benzodiazepines, the higher his or her risk of Alzheimer’s. Taking a benzodiazepine for less than three months had no effect on Alzheimer’s risk. Taking the drug for three to six months raised the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 32%, and taking it for more than six months boosted the risk by 84%. People taking a long-acting benzodiazepine were at greater risk than those on a short-acting one.
Nearly 40,000 people a year die by suicide in the United States alone. Each of these deaths leaves an estimated six or more “suicide survivors” — people who’ve lost someone they care about deeply and are left grieving and struggling to understand. The grief process is always difficult. But a loss through suicide is like no other, and grieving can be especially complex and traumatic. People coping with this kind of loss often need more support than others, but may get less. Why? Survivors may be reluctant to confide that the death was self-inflicted. And when others know the circumstances of the death, they may feel uncertain about how to offer help.
A few years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued warnings that children and teens who took a common kind of antidepressant might experience suicidal thoughts. The point of the warning was to make sure that parents and doctors paid closer attention to kids taking these medications. But the plan may have backfired. A national team of researchers tracked antidepressant use among 2.5 million young people between 2000 and 2010. After the FDA’s warnings in 2003 and 2004, use of commonly prescribed antidepressants fell by 30% in teenagers while suicide attempts rose by 22%. The researchers concluded that the decrease in antidepressant use, sparked by worries over suicidal thoughts, may have left many depressed young people without appropriate treatment and that may have boosted the increase in suicide attempts.
A study published in this month’s Journal of Nutrition suggests that drinking caffeinated beverages, having the occasional alcoholic drink, and eating a healthy diet may help preserve memory and thinking skills long into old age. In particular, foods that are part of the Mediterranean diet—fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, olive oil, and whole grains—show promise for preserving memory and preventing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.